I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Sadly, it took her death to remind me of her life and work. Re-visiting this book as an adult, I can more greatly appreciate the strength, the powerful words, the poetry of her story. The warmth of her relationship with brother Bailey, Momma (grandma), and the woman who introduces her to books (and helps her regain her voice after many years as a mute), Mrs. Flowers. The heartbreaking scene at graduation from eighth grade where the white politician drones on and unleashes despair on the crowd he’s meant to invigorate, relegating them to roles of maids, farmers, handymen and washerwomen.

It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other.

Shipped off to California, she begins a life in San Francisco with her mother, living on Post St., 2 blocks from Fillmore, and falls in love with the air-conditioned city. “The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness.”

To San Franciscans “the City That Knows How” was the Bay, the fog, Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Top o’ the Mark, Chinatown, the Sunset District and so on and so forth and so white. To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. The fog wasn’t simply the steamy vapors off the bay caught and penned in by hills, but a soft breath of anonymity that shrouded and cushioned the bashful traveler. I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco. Safe in my protecting arrogance, I was certain that no one loved her as impartially as I.

Somewhere along the way of high school, she takes a summer vacation to live with her father in LA, taking a memorable jaunt into Mexico with him where she has to learn to drive after he passes out drunk, then Maya gets stabbed by his girlfriend back in LA. Wound treated, she sets off on her own, living in a junkyard for a month before flying back to SF. She also takes time to fight her way into being the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco, with great descriptions of the disappointing dingy and musty MTA offices. (I also heard an interview with her on KQED a few years ago where she also mentioned being a cab driver in SF, but haven’t found any other mention of that.)

To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.

Related:
Terrific video clips of her revisiting Stamps with Bill Moyer, and railing against evil.